1,465 Miles in a Frankfurt Flyer

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 edition of the Porsche 356 Regsitry.

The very first thing anyone asks when they see the Frankfurt Flyer is always, “What the heck is that thing?”.

No, it’s not a kit car. No, it’s not technically a Porsche. It is something else altogether. Perhaps the best way to describe the Rünge Frankfurt Flyer is that it’s a Porsche powered work of art; an homage to the craft, passion, and obsession of men like Walter Glöckler and Petermax Müller.

These were the pioneers, or perhaps rather the madmen, who built the predecessors to the modern Porsche we all know and love today. Driven by the desire to go faster, these rocketmen had octane in their blood and found innovative—and sometimes desperate—ways to get more speed out of the cars they built. Utilizing the time tested approach of squeezing more power out of whatever motors they had on hand and shaving weight wherever possible, they would race these handbuilt aluminum cars throughout Germany during the 1940’s and 50’s.

Of course, these creations also found their way into the renowned Mille Miglia, Nürburgring and other races. These endurance events were considered the most dangerous motoring competitions of their time—and that is precisely where I got the idea to drive one of Christopher Rünge’s Frankfurt Flyers from his home state of Minnesota to the winding roads of the Hudson River Valley.

Nearly a year earlier I had commissioned Chris to build Frankfurt Flyer #005. My specs were simple: stay pure to the heritage of the car, use a Porsche 356C “Bruchrasa” engine—aptly named for Tom Bruch, the engine builder who set his first land speed record at Bonneville in a 1967 Porsche 356 Carrera Speedster—and divert from the legacy only in one area. I wanted the wheels to remind me of the early morning sky in the Sierra Nevada.

My plan was to book a one way ticket to Minnesota, drive to the Rünge workshop, jump in the cockpit and drive nearly 1,500 miles on state highways through cornfields and mountains as fast as I could.

Just as I had grown up idolizing mountaineers and adventurers like Sir Edmund Hillary and the more egomaniacal, and insanely accomplished Mark Twight, I found the mostly obscure and anonymous toolroom racers of the past becoming the heroes of my adult childhood. I wanted badly to experience the blistering heat, the blinding sun, and the prayer that you make it through the turn just as I had wanted badly to experience hurricane force winds atop remote mountains in my youth.

Like all adventures, things did not start off according to plan. When I arrived at Chris’s house early on a Friday afternoon in the woods of central Minnesota, I was quickly introduced to the raw handbuilt time machine I’d be piloting back through farm lands to Silicon Alley. The simplicity was astounding. Each of the rivets perfectly spaced. The sun gleamed off every angle of the aluminum body. The blue wheels mimicked the bluebird sky reflecting off the hand hammered aluminum.

She was, I thought, perfect.

I stuffed a duffle bag, camera, and small tool kit under the aluminum tonneau cover and, without much fanfare, I was off.

Unfortunately, I only made it about ninety miles before Chris had to pick me up, stranded on the side of the road, with what we thought must have been a bad generator that drained the battery of all life. She simply wouldn’t start.

After a day of nonstop problem solving we had figured out it wasn’t the generator at all. The aftermarket voltage regulator Chris had initially used was reversed and unlabeled. With a new Bosch regulator installed, courtesy of a local gearhead’s Super Beetle, I was on my way by Sunday morning. As the Flyer approached mile 356 on the odometer I found myself thinking of the men who inspired this car, and the cars of their time, nearly seventy years ago.

Years before becoming an official Porsche racer, Petermax Müller built one of the first of these kinds of toolroom racers in postwar Germany around 1947. Food in Germany was incredibly scarce and Müller used his access to food to barter with Wolfsburg engineers for their services. This is the earliest example of a “Frankfurt Flyer” style racer that I know of, but they peppered the German countryside during the decade after the end of the war. 

They used mostly Volkswagen parts from military vehicles like the Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen but, around the same time a car dealer and motorcycle racer in Frankfurt named Walter Glöckler was also building VW-based lightweight racers.

It’s impossible to believe that Dr. Porsche had no idea what these men were up to, using 356 engines and parts to build something faster and, with all due respect, better.

I pulled off that first night at Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa, overlooking the Mississippi River a short pitch from the shores of Wisconsin. The campground was full and the sky was dark when the Flyer sought shelter, louder than I would have hoped, away from the prying eyes of any park ranger who might want to kick me out for not having a campsite.

Fatigued, sunburnt, and smelling of oil and exhaust I passed out under the Iowa sky to the sound of locomotives in the distance.

Six hours later I was showered and back on the road before nearly anyone at the campground was awake. As I rolled up and down the beautiful country roads that border both these states I mused about the history of the car, and by default the history of Porsche. There is so much history that we as modern Porsche owners have taken for granted. While 356ers may know the name, only a small minority of the Boxster and 911 drivers I come across have any idea who Walter Glöckler even is.

As someone who’s new to the world or Porsche ownership I’m amazed at the blank response I get from fellow Porsche owners when I mention Glöckler’s name. I can count the number of people on one hand who have recognized Petermax Müller’s name. But these were the archetypes behind the cars we know and love today. In many ways, the 550 was born from these designs.

I stopped somewhere in Indiana for gas and to check on mechanicals. With the rear shell open she attracts the attention of men of all ages. Old toothless gear heads, rednecks, yuppies, but the girl eyeing me up was none of those. Six feet of legs and Polo Red lipstick in a floral sundress. With a glance she suggested things far too inappropriate for a Sunday morning. I expected to watch her get in her boyfriends car and peer back at me but she, an apparition, was gone by the time I had finished fueling up the Flyer.

I hit the road again and watched the odometer climb over a thousand miles. A thousand miles. That may have been more mileage than all of the other Frankfurt Flyers combined, and it was only my second day. As I approached a train crossing I felt the heat suddenly become overwhelming and the Flyer began to lose power. She had been accelerating, climbing, and turning like I imagined a P-52 would have handled. Loudly, but decisively. Now, without warning, I was in the middle of congested traffic with a lack of power to the wheels.

In the past, racers would have had a crew riding alongside them with spare parts and knowledge to keep the car in the race. Me? I had Chris. Masochistically loyal to his customers, and rightfully proud of his creations, he checked in with me every few hours to see how the ride was going. On several occasions we leveraged the wonderful beauty of the iPhone’s FaceTime to troubleshoot small problems, like a lack of acceleration due to a slipping throttle cable, which was easily fixed with me hanging upside down out of the single-seater cockpit of the Flyer, all the while entertaining the questions and amazement of fellow travelers.

I don’t recall how I first found out about Christopher Rünge’s handbuilt cars. According to my email records, I first reached out to him on May 31, 2015. At the time, he had only built two of his now relatively famous Flyers. A week later he would publicly unveil his third handbuilt racer and he had just started to build his fourth. After seeing photos of these raw aluminum bodied racers, I knew I had to have the fifth. I didn’t quite know how I would get my hands on Number Five, but if Müller could build his original racer piece by piece in exchange for food at a time when the memory of using Deutschmarks for kindling was still fresh in the minds of millions of Germans, then I certainly had no excuse.

I was looking for a car that could be a daily driver if I wanted it to be. Something solid with a rust free body and pristine frame. I wanted a vintage racer to drive hard through the twists of the Catskills, but didn’t want the fear of a twisted frame or seventy year old mechanicals not being able to hold up to the stress of driving—really driving—these cars the way they were intended to be driven.

That’s why I thought, somewhat naively, that this beautiful toolroom racer would be the perfect daily driver for me.

As I barreled down the eastern Pennsylvania mountains the front end bucked up and down against the storm winds lifting up the front end. Lightning flashed on the horizon but I was deaf to any sound of thunder.

All I could hear was the melodic percussion of Tom Bruch’s horizontal four. I hoped the storm would hold off, or that I’d somehow skirt it, until I got home.

But the rain began to fall. Slowly at first. I thought I had been hit in the face with a small rock. Then more. The rain sandblasted my face and felt like shards of glass against my sunburnt forehead.

I pulled off the road, took shelter in the parking lot of a 24 hour Denny’s, and hastily covered my faithful chariot in the waterproof canvas tarp I hard brought for exactly this occasion.

I had known I’d be threading the needle through at least two or three thunderstorms, and I wove my way around two of them, but the third had hit early and caught me by surprise. The forecast was bleak, but I decided to ignore the weather predictions on my iPhone and trust my instinct. As soon as the rain began to fade I was out in the parking lot checking the oil and tire pressure before taking off beneath a cascade of lightning that illuminated the slick roads ahead.

Fifty six hours after setting off from Minnesota I was home. The skin was peeling off my forehead from the wind and sunburn, my eyes were wide from the adrenaline and alertness required to pilot me home as fast and as safely as possible, and I could hear the engine roaring in my ears hours after she had been put to bed.

I had traveled 1,465 miles from start to finish, and I felt the camaraderie between beast and man. A bond reserved for those who have made it through something spectacular. Where, but for the grace of God and German engineering, things could have gone terribly wrong.

Leave a Reply